Chapter 1, Earth Fall
Voices, full of uncertainty and fear, echoed throughout the room. Everyone was asking questions that no one had answers to. No one-except Shepard. That is why they had summoned in him some vain hope that he could prove their fears wrong, that the insane warnings that he had given were just that; the ramblings of a man unhinged by a long history of struggle and violence. Delusion was the final refuge of the prideful.
Sitting on that same raised dais as before, one of the admirals noticed them enter the room and spoke. The righteous conviction from his tribunal was gone, replaced with poorly disguised fear.
"Admiral Anderson. Shepard. We lost contact with Arcturus station half an hour ago... attempts to contact Admiral Hackett or the Fifth Fleet have failed."
"Do we have any reports from out scouts? Anything at all?" Anderson asked.
"Nothing. The only information we have is from long range observation buoys. They confirmed the presence of something large, a fleet maybe. We need to determine what we're facing."
"You know exactly what it is," Shepard said. "The Reapers are here."
"We have no confirmation!"
Panic and confusion. Three years to prepare and it almost seemed as if he had never stopped Saren. A dozen voices, ranking officers to technicians all speaking at once immediately put the room into a dull roar. Finally one of the other admirals slammed a datapad down on the desk, snapping everyone's attention to him. His face was ashen but Shepard at his gave him credit for maintaining his composure.
"Quiet! We just lost contact with Luna base..."
Even Anderson looked surprised, glancing over to him with widened eyes. "Already? By god they're fast... the Sword fleets..."
"Didn't even slow them down."
That was when he felt the vibration, a deep, resonating hum that sent his bones on edge. Outside the gleaming white of the cityscape darkened as a shadow fell across it. Shepard felt a primal urge: fear of a larger predator, fear of seeing death in person. The unmistakable form of a Reaper dropped out of the sky, landing with a force that shook the foundations of the building, its bizarre form like a twisted sea creature or spider that came from the depths of space. Cries of panic filled the room. They became even more acute when there was a brilliant flash of red and a beam of molten metal shot out, streaking towards the building.
"Everyone down!" Shepard roared.
It was a futile gesture, even as he dove for cover. A split second later the room exploded in fire and debris, screams cut off in an instant of brutality. He felt his feet leave the floor, the massive table that the admirals had sat in judgement at six months before streaking overhead like a missile, barely missing his head. For a brief second he blacked out.
"Come on, Shepard, we've got to move!"
The former Spectre blinked and pushed himself up, ignoring the ringing in his ears. Anderson was helping him up, covered in soot and scratches but otherwise having survived the blast miraculously well. Others in the room were not so lucky. Many had been simply vaporized by the blast, while a few had been killed by the force of the explosion, bodies twisted at unnatural angles and eyes open but unseeing.
Finally he managed to make it to his feet, wiping at his mouth and spitting at the taste of ash. "I'm alright. Lead on... to... whereever. Hell, I don't even know."
"I do," Anderson said confidently and opened his omni-tool. "Lieutenant Commander Williams, are you receiving me?"
The comm was filled with static but the voice was familiar through it all. "We have you, Admiral. We're already on our way."
"Looks like its my turn to ride in to the rescue. We're on our way, Admiral," she responded.
"Understood, over and out. Here, I'm not taking any chances. Hope you haven't forgotten how to use one of these after six months of soft beds and regular meals," Anderson said, producing a pistol from his back and tossing it over.
He caught the gun easily and thumbed the activation switch. Standard Alliance issue, M-3 Predator. It was a simple and familiar weapon. A quick once over showed it was unmodified and had a full thermal clip. Shepard arched a brow at the older man but didn't ask why he just happened to be carrying a spare pistol even as they began to pick their way through the wreckage, skirting the outside of the destroyed building.
Once they were clear of the smoke and rubble they were greeted by a sight filled with even more devastation. Reapers, massive and malevolent, stalked among the city like the skyscrapers were a great metal forest and they the apex predators. In truth, maybe they were. That same resonating groan echoed seconds before another burst of ruby light struck out to annihilate yet another unfortunate target. The city was already covered in a thickening blanket of black smoke. Below them he could hear explosions in the street. Weapons fire lit up the sky in every direction as Alliance forces returned fire. Shepard smiled grimly. Let it never be said that humans went out quietly.
"Even believing you all this time... it still doesn't prepare you to see this," the admiral said, picking his way through a still smoldering office.
"Nothing can. I just wish..."
"Don't think about 'might have been', Shepard. The only reason this didn't happen three years ago when we were even less prepared is because you stopped Saren."
The former Spectre sighed. "But did I buy the galaxy three more years just for the same thing to happen anyway?"
Anderson turned on his heel and slapped a hand on Shepard's shoulder, fire in his eyes. "Don't you give me that, son. I've known you since you were a cocky young officer looking for trouble. You've done more than anyone should ever have asked of you, but you're not a quitter. You didn't stop in the hunt for Saren. You didn't even stop when the damn Collectors blew you out the sky. I'll be damned if I'm going to listen to you give up now! Do you understand me, soldier?"
By sheer reflex he felt his body tense into attention and he nodded sharply. It was almost like he'd been slapped in the face, but after six months of mind numbing captivity it was exactly what he needed.
"That's better," Anderson said, a tired smile on his face. "This war isn't over yet. Now let's get to the Normandy and show the Reapers that Earth has plenty of fight left in her."
He returned the expression. "Lead on, Admiral. And you're right. This isn't over yet."
"Over here, this door should cut through the upper offices and get us near the water way. Probably the best area for a hot pick up."
The attack had disabled the power to most of the building, back up generators were attempting to sputter to life but the results were less than spectacular as evidenced by the closed sliding doors. Grabbing the double doors Shepard grunted and pushed hard, forcing them wider while Anderson pulled on one side. Clearly they'd never been meant to operate without power, a stupid oversight in retrospect.
"There we go, almost-"
An inhuman hiss cut the admiral off and Shepard barely had time to jerk back as a dull gray, taloned hand thrust through the doors. The thing screeched and lunged against the doors, trying to force its body through the gap. Anderson fell backwards as he let go, the door shutting on the husk even as Shepard was yanking the pistol from his belt. A single crack echoed in the large room. The husk slumped lifelessly.
"Son of a bitch... they've already got husks on the ground?" Shepard growled, adrenaline giving him an additional burst of strength to shove the doors open long enough for the two of them to get through.
"Apparently so. We need to move. No such thing as one husk," Anderson said.
He chuckled. "Glad to see someone was reading my reports at least."
"The committee might not have listened worth a damn but that doesn't mean we've been completely lax. You being stuck under 'house arrest' has left you out of the loop," the admiral explained as they worked their way through the ruined building, keeping a careful watch for movement. "Hackett, myself, and other high ranking officers that couldn't ignore the evidence have been doing what we can. The Sword Fleets have been on additional training maneuvers and readiness drills, I've been routing additional supply requests for Earth and the colonies every chance I get."
"At least admiralship seems to be suiting you. Sometimes I wish you'd stuck with the Council appointment. Sure could have used that kind of pull."
"Maybe, but I did what I had to do. I was never cut out for politics and when push comes to shove I wasn't willing to preserve the position at the expense of other concerns."
"I understand that much. A man does what he has to do," Shepard agreed. "I would have liked us to be waiting for the Reapers with the entire fleet, but it's still good to hear we've made at least some preparations."
"We won't run out of bullets and rations, and Hackett pushed hard to get that quantum entanglement communication tech installed on as many ships and facilities as possible. So if nothing else at least some good came of turning the Normandy over to Alliance control."
"Maybe... I was afraid they'd tear the girl up looking for Cerberus bugs and technology," Shepard said.
Anderson grunted, lifting a fallen bookshelf and shoving it out of the way of the next doorway. Dusting off his hands he laughed. "No worries there, she's still in good condition, though I understand they've made some modifications. That ship is too damn effective to take out of commission permanently, especially after those upgrades you installed."
They found their way blocked by an utterly destroyed floor, but he could see the waterfront through the shattered windows. Further conversation was delayed as they jogged to the edge, looking down. It was a good six or seven foot drop, but nothing too dangerous. Glancing at Anderson, they both jumped at the same time, hitting the concrete below with a practiced roll. The admiral flexed his shoulder on standing, but seemed none the worse for the wear.
"Good to see you haven't forgotten how to take a fall."
Anderson laughed. "Same for you. You didn't forget that back in the day I was originally up for your job, right?"
"Never. You'd have made a hell of a Spectre."
"Maybe. But clearly that was meant to be your achievement. Let me see if I can get a better signal," Anderson said, tapping at his omni-tool. "Williams, do you read?"
There was a burst of static and a voice that could have been Ashley's saying Anderson's name, but it was difficult to make anything out. The building shook as a Reaper stalked out into the water, blasting away at gunships that fired on it in futility. He was about to suggest finding some way to boost the signal when there was an echoing boom and a bright flash. The Reaper actually staggered slightly, one of its insect like legs moving back to steady itself.
"Jesus! That crazy bastard actually brought a dreadnought into the atmosphere," Anderson said as the Everest Class warship fired its main gun once more. The projectile's contrail streaked across the sky, slamming into the Reaper and sending another shockwave washing across the surrounding area.
"Who the hell would do that?"
"Captain Jacobi? Maybe…I don't know. I can't make out the markings from here. Whomever it is they've gotten the Reaper's attention... damn, move! Get into cover, it's going to-"
Despite the dreadnought's efforts the Reaper appeared mostly undamaged aside from some carbon scoring and a crackling in its barriers. A second later the now familiar report of the Reaper's main gun was heard and the ruby beam shot out to strike the hovering ship. For a brief second the dreadnought's shields held... and then shattered, the blast piercing through her hull like a spear. And then an explosion far greater than even the considerable impact of the ship's mass drivers turned the sky white, washing over them both with heat and a roar of sound. Shepard felt the ledge under his feet giving way but could do nothing about it but tuck his arms in and roll.
For the second time in less than an hour his ears were ringing. Shepard pulled himself to his feet and tried to clear his head, looking around for Anderson. The older man slid down the now mostly collapsed roof to land next to him, wiping dust from his face.
"Damn, took out a dreadnought like it was nothing. The explosion rattled everything, I can't raise the Normandy at all now. We need to find a dedicated radio so I can call in our coordinates to the Normandy."
Shepard looked at the Reaper, turning away from the smoldering wreckage of the dreadnought and turning its attention back to the cityscape. "We can't stand up to them one on one... we have to keep mobile, it's our only advantage."
"One more lesson we need to get out of here to pass on," Anderson said.
"I saw a gunship go down a few blocks over, on the pier. Assuming it didn't completely break up on impact it should have a radio good enough to cut through the interference."
"That's our destination, then."
The farther they went the more the cityscape turned into rubble. More often than not streets were cut off by fallen buildings and thus far they hadn't encountered any other survivors. Those first few blasts had devastating the local area and those that had survived immediately vacated the area. Cutting through an alleyway they heard the sound of weapons fire, close this time.
"Let's move," Shepard said, breaking into a run with the admiral right behind.
Two soldiers were pressed against the remains of a stone wall, firing over their heads at approaching husks. Another man was laying a short distance away being tended by a medic. Even from this distance he could see the red stain covering the man's hands that were clasped against his stomach. One of the husks was taken off its feet by a burst of fire but there were a dozen more to take its place.
One of the husks leapt over the wall as the pair cleared the last pile of rubble. Talons lashed out and ripped the assault rifle from the soldier's hands, a cry of terror coming from the pinned man. Shepard gritted his teeth and reached out, feeling his biotics flare. A wave of dark energy surged forth, gripping the husk and sending it flying back against the wall with an indelicate crunch. He smiled when he didn't feel a headache follow. Six months with nothing to do had at least given him time to practice, seeing as how the biotic amp Cerberus had installed during his 'resurrection' wasn't something that could be removed.
"Look alive, soldier! You're not done yet!" Shepard barked at the stunned man.
He tossed the young soldier his pistol and hooked the discarded Avenger with his foot, kicking the weapon into the air and tucking it into his shoulder just in time catch another husk coming over the wall with a burst in the chest.
The one he'd just saved blinked twice before scrambling to his feet. "S-Shepard?"
"That's me, now cover the left flank. Don't use the buildings for cover, husks will climb right over it. Center of mass until they get close and then aim for the head!"
"Now that's the Shepard I remember," Anderson said from behind him even as settled into a firing stance. The pistol in his hands cracked twice and another of the charging husks' heads snapped back before it crumpled to the ground.
He merely gave the admiral a small smile and turned back to the matter at hand. The Reaper abominations were sprinting forward still, that raspy howl audible even over the roar of weapons and the footsteps of the Reapers as they marched through the city. The two armed soldiers fired with renewed confidence; it wasn't pinpoint accuracy but at least it wasn't the desperate spraying from before. He drew a bead on the nearest husk with his own rifle, squeezing out measured, short bursts that quickly cut it down.
"They're fracking everywhere!" the other soldier growled, slapping a new thermal into his rifle.
"Just keep firing!" Shepard ordered.
Half a dozen more fell under the hail of fire, but they were getting closer. Anderson took a few at the knees just to slow their advance. He dropped his sights onto one that was bounding over the rubble straight for him only to hear a click and the rifle to hiss, venting excess heat before ejecting a smoldering thermal clip. It was his turn to find a husk sailing through the air at him.
Unlike an inexperienced young corporal, though, Shepard knew exactly how to deal with husks. The Reaper creations were horrific and relentless, but they were mindless cybernetic zombies without a hint of tactics or skill. He dropped the rifle and caught the beast's outstretched arms, using its own momentum to roll with the impact and then throw it to the ground. The husk screeched and lashed out, claws raking along the side of his cheek. He clenched his teeth in pain but didn't stop driving his knee into its chest and bringing his fist down wreathed in raw biotic power. With a powerful jerk the husk's head twisted sideways with a snap and it went limp. Behind him a few more shots rang out before finally it was only distant explosions and heavy breathing to be heard.
"You alright, Shepard?" Anderson asked.
"Yea, I'll make it. The rest of them?"
"We're okay, sir," the soldier that he'd saved replied, saluting them both. "Corporal Franks, sir. I thought we were screwed. Never thought I'd be getting saved by an admiral and Commander Shepard."
"Just Shepard now," he corrected.
The other soldier, resting his rifle on his shoulder, shook his head. "Brass might have canned you, but some of the rank and file know you were fighting the good fight. You'll always be Commander to us."
He couldn't help but feel a slight warmth at the statement and gratefully returned the men's salute. "Thank you for that, Corporal. Now we're looking for a downed bird so that we can radio for pick up. Have you seen her?"
Franks snorted. "Seen her? We were in her. The four of us are the only ones that made it. She's just down the next block at the edge of the water. It's crawling down there though, sir. And not just with these... husks. There's bigger ones, with guns sticking right out of their arms. Freaky looking things."
"We always knew the Reapers hadn't show us all of their tricks yet," Anderson said.
"I don't care if they're giant robot krogan, we need that radio. Sit tight, Corporal. We'll have you out of here in no time. Here Anderson, trade me."
He tossed the rifle at the older man, taking the offered pistol in return. When Anderson gave him a questioning look he could only shrugged. "Unless you've sprouted biotic abilities in the last two years too, I figure you need that more than I do."
"Point taken, let's move. If we don't radio the Normandy soon this airspace is going to be too hostile for any kind of pick up."
The pair quickly made their way down the ruined embankment until they saw the still smoldering wreckage of the gunship. Free of the tall buildings they had a panoramic view of the unfolding battle. In the distance they could see the towering forms of Reapers walking among the city, burning everything in their path. Fighters and gunships filled the air, chasing the same round fighter craft that EDI had termed 'oculi' during their encounter with the Collectors. An ever-thickening haze of smoke rose from the destruction. Movement much closer caught his eye, though.
"They weren't kidding. Those are new... and hideous," Shepard said even as the new breed of husk noticed them.
Mouths opened wide, the enemies screamed in unison. The things were misshapen beasts with a quartet of glowing blue eyes, twice the bulk of a man and covered in bulbous growths that leaned to the left. Where their right arms should be was instead a barrel of a weapon that was melded into their bodies. Shepard and Anderson both ducked in unison as the weapons glowed briefly, spitting out a heavy volume of fire.
"Their faces, Shepard," Anderson said from his position crouched behind the wall. "Four eyes, one set under the other?"
He frowned. "Batarians. They hit them already and we didn't even know it."
"Either they were too proud to call for help... or they never even got the chance."
"I've never been the biggest fan of the batarians but I'd never wish that on anyone," Shepard said. "Come on. All we can do for them now is put them down."
The admiral nodded curtly and rose from cover, rifle already beating out a staccato rhythm. Under his watchful fire Shepard rolled from cover and lined up a shot, feathering the trigger of his pistol to put three rounds between the first of the creature's numerous eyes. It had barely hit the earth before he lashed out with his biotics once more, reaching down into that same dark feeling he'd had what felt like a lifetime ago. His body pulsed with energy and his lips curled into a snarl. Tendrils seemed to streak across the space between Shepard and his assailants, lancing them with crackling strands.
Rifle fire died down as Anderson stood from cover. The creatures screeched for a moment before the energy seemed to tighten around them and the sound of cracking bone was heard. The remaining three collapsed with wet thumps. Glancing back he couldn't help but notice his former captain's surprised expression. One laced with not more than a little concern.
"I'm not one to complain about effective use of force but I've never seen anything like that before. It's like you tried to pull them in every direction at once."
He was already moving towards the crash site as he spoke, not looking back. "Samara, the Justicar that served with me during the mission against the Collectors, called it a technique known as 'reaving'. Something they didn't teach most of the asari. Old, effective. Unpleasant."
"How the hell did you learn it? It doesn't sound like something the asari would just hand out."
"I didn't learn it. Cerberus' messing around with me after... the Normandy's destruction had some side effects," Shepard explained, trying to sound as detached as possible. "I had a strong emotional reaction in a combat situation and just lashed out. What you just saw was the more refined version of my first taste of biotics. Back then I only managed to hit one enemy and it nearly made me pass out."
The former Spectre jumped over the last pile of rubble before the pier, circling around to gain access to the gunship. Behind him Anderson's voice was that same confident tone but he could hear the note of caution.
"I'm not going to pass judgement, Shepard. But seeing your face... you looked downright murderous. I've seen men look like that before. It rarely turned out well."
He shrugged. "It's not something I've learned to enjoy using. I have to latch onto those same emotional feelings to get the effect. Something psychological, I guess."
"And what emotions are those?"
"Anger. Desperation... fear. Hate."
Before the admiral could formulate a response they had located their prize. Shepard ducked inside, shaking his head sadly at the awkwardly twisted forms of the pilot and unlucky passengers. They were free from war, at least. Free from the hell that Earth was about to become. He did his best to ignore the smell of charred flesh and bile as he yanked the radio free of its housing, dragging it outside.
"Here... see if you can patch in."
Anderson knelt, working his omni-tool until it finally gave a hopeful chime. "There we go! Normandy, this is Admiral Anderson. Come in, Normandy!"
They both held their breath for a few agonizing moments. And then the comm lit up.
"Admiral!" Ashley yelled. "Where are you? This place is chaos! We've got strike teams moving in to try and hold key areas while we evacuate but the damn Reapers... they're cutting our boys apart."
"I'm sending you our coordinates now, Williams. We need an immediate extraction, I get the feeling we're about to have company," the admiral said, looking to the sky.
Hundreds of burning contrails drew burning red lines through the haze. Some were the disintegrating remains of Alliance warships, the first casualties in a war that already seemed a foregone conclusion. Others were smaller and faster, impacting across the city like an unholy rain. One roared just overhead and slammed into the pier a few hundred meters away. The smoke cleared quickly, revealing a teeming mass of husks and more of the Reaper's newest nightmares.
"We've got to hold until the Normandy can reach us."
"Same gameplan. You provide overwatch, I'll thin them out," Shepard said.
No more words were spoken. The fire was heavier than before, with at least a dozen of the larger creatures firing away at their position while the all too familiar variety of common husk charged forward. Shepard did his best to take out a few of the gunners, but soon it was all he and Anderson could do to keep their heads down and thin out the fast moving husks before they reached the defensive line.
"I'm running low!" Anderson shouted over the gunfire.
"Makes two of us!"
He sent a pulsing shockwave out to knock back the next swarm of husks, scattering them. It was only a momentary respite. Some remained down but others had already crawled back to their feet. Shepard emptied his last thermal clip to send one of the ranged husks tumbling into the waters.
"Normandy! We need that evac now!"
"It's just biotics and a knife now. Where the hell is our back up?" Shepard demanded.
Another familiar voice responded. "Someone call for room service? I've got one big freaking gun for the room with all the husks!"
The ground shook as a powerful shot slammed into the mass of husks, vaporizing most and tearing others apart. A few in the front ranks survived, only to suddenly be riddled with a volley of fire from their left flank as Alliance shuttles flew into view, soldiers on mounted door guns tearing into them. Shepard couldn't help but smile.
"I'm always amazed to say this, but it's good to hear your voice, Joker."
"You know you love me, especially when I blow up Reapers."
The Normandy swooped overhead. Pride swelled in his chest at her sleek lines and the name emblazoned so proudly on her hull, now in striking Alliance blue he noticed. She may have been remade by Cerberus and scarred by war but that ship would always be everything that was right with the universe as far as he was concerned. It was home.
"Time to get out here, sir," Shepard said as Joker brought the ship around, the lower cargo door opening.
Beneath his feet the ground shook again. He looked behind him to see the silhouette that was both familiar and different at the same time. It was a Reaper, but smaller, though likely it was only slightly less deadly. Shuttles zoomed back and forth, picking up survivors even as another rain of pods fell. Husks screamed and weapons fire erupted not far away. He could see another pack of creatures sprinting in their direction.
Joker piped up. "He's right, Admiral! I can't hover here for long or one of those Reapers is going to aim that big damn gun at us!"
"I'm not going."
His head snapped back. "What?"
"This war has just begun and if there's going to be an Earth left to save someone has to teach the people that are left how to fight a war," Anderson said. "That's my job."
"If you're staying then so am I."
Anderson shook his head. "No, Shepard. You've got to walk a different path, the one you started when they made you the first human Spectre. Go out there and tell them. Tell them all that you were right. That's an order."
"I'm not in the Alliance anymore, remember? You can't give me orders!" Shepard said firmly.
The older man's hand reached out and snatched his wrist before Shepard could react, slapping something cool with hard edges into his hand. Anderson fixed him with a stare that brooked no argument and spoke volumes that could never be expressed in words. His mouth set in a grim line before finally softening into a faint, tired smile.
"Consider yourself reinstated... Commander."
Shepard looked down at the tags in his hand and back to the admiral.
"Now go out there and show the galaxy how it's done. We need the rest of the galaxy to stand together if we're going to beat the Reapers. Make us proud, son."
He snapped a crisp salute.
"Aye aye, Captain."
The two soldiers turned and ran towards their respective duties. Anderson towards the shuttles that would lead to a long war for the birthplace of humanity. Shepard towards the ship he called home, and a war that spanned the galaxy.
Completing the intro to the story proper, so the real story can be gin. I'd like to thank my two new beta readers PliableFoe and JGalt91 who have already proven invaluable. If you notice a (staggering) amount less errors in this chapter it's due to their editing skills.